Pea is a frost-hardy, cool-season vegetable that can be grown throughout most of the United States, wherever a cool season of sufficient duration exists. For gardening purposes, peas may be classified as garden peas (English peas), snap peas and snow peas (sugar peas).
“The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.”
~ Hannah Rion
Garden pea varieties have smooth or wrinkled seeds. The smooth-seeded varieties tend to have more starch than the wrinkled-seeded varieties. The wrinkled-seeded varieties are generally sweeter and usually preferred for home use. The smooth-seeded types are used more often to produce ripe seeds that are used like dry beans and to make split-pea soup. Snap peas have been developed from garden peas to have low-fiber pods that can be snapped and eaten along with the immature peas inside. Snow peas are meant to be harvested as flat, tender pods before the peas inside develop at all. The Southern pea (cowpea) is an entirely different warm-season vegetable that is planted and grown in the same manner as beans ( See the beans section.
When to Plant
Peas thrive in cool, moist weather and produce best in cool, moderate climates. Early plantings normally produce larger yields than later plantings. Peas may be planted whenever the soil temperature is at least 45°F, and the soil is dry enough to till without its sticking to garden tools.
Plantings of heat-tolerant varieties can be made in midsummer to late summer, to mature during cool fall days. Allow more days to the first killing frost than the listed number of days to maturity because cool fall days do not speed development of the crop as do the long, bright days of late spring.
Sowing Preparation & Care
Refer to the fertilizer and watering basics in the Vegetable Gardening Basics section, before beginning sowing. The germinating seeds and small seedlings are easily injured by direct contact with fertilizer or improper cultivation.
Peas grow best in well-drained soil that is rich in phosphorus and potassium. Moisten seeds before planting and coat with bacterial inoculant powder. Bacterial inoculant powder is important because rhizobial bacteria contained in the powder form nodules on the roots of the pea plant and convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form available to the plants. Plants will be healthier and more productive.
Do not be tempted to sow into cold, wet ground because germination will be poor. If spring is slow to arrive, warm the soil by covering it with polythene before sowing, and then protect the seedlings with fleece.
Most dwarf and intermediate varieties are self-supporting. The taller varieties (Green Arrow and Bolero) are most productive and more easily picked when trained to poles or to a fence for support. Peas can be mulched to cool the soil, reduce moisture loss and keep down soil rots.
Some of the snap and sugar peas are vining types with heights of 6 feet or more that require fencing or other supports.
Spacing & Depth
Plant peas 1.5 – 2” inches deep and 2-3” inches apart in single or double rows (allow 8 to 10 inches between double row pairs). Allow 18 to 24 inches (1.5 – 2 feet) between single or double-row pairs.
Erect trellises for tall-growing, vining types at planting using chicken wire, brush or other suitable trellis material. If trellising, increase row spacing to 4 to 6 feet. Sowing seed in a single row, or pair of rows, works best for taller varieties because it makes it easier to support them. It also gives increased air circulation around the plants, helping to prevent powdery mildew as well as making weeding easier.
A traditional method of sowing peas, which works well with shorter varieties (such as the Little Marvel), is to make a flat trench 2 inches deep, 10 inches wide, with a hoe. Water the trench first, then sow the seeds 2-2.75” apart in three rows along the bottom of the trench. Press the seed in a little so that it does not become displaced when the trench is backfilled with soil. Firm the ground lightly with the back of the hoe.
The shorter varieties can also be sown in small blocks. Lay seed on the soil in a staggered pattern (see picture) so that each is 6 inches apart. If the soil is loose, simply push in the seed to a depth of 2 inches otherwise, use a trowel to do so.
PEAS Staggered planting
Harvesting Garden Peas
Harvest peas regularly to ensure they are at the peak of freshness. Even if some pods are clearly past their prime, take them off anyway to leave more resources for remaining pods. Pick from the bottom of the plant and work up. Eat or freeze as soon as possible after picking to retain the maximum flavor and nutrients.
When the pea pods are swollen (appear round) they are ready to be picked. Pick a few pods every day or two near harvest time to determine when the peas are at the proper stage for eating. Peas are of the best quality when they are fully expanded but immature, before they become hard and starchy. Peas should be picked immediately before cooking because their quality, especially sweetness (like that of sweet corn), deteriorates rapidly. The pods on the lower portion of the plant mature earliest. The last harvest (usually the third) is made about one week after the first.
After the harvest, do not pull up the spent crops, but cut off the stems at the ground level. This is because the clusters of small white nodules found at the roots are full of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. If left in the ground these nodules will rot down, releasing their nitrogen back into the soil for the next crop to use.
The first signs of fusarium wilt and root-rot disease are the yellowing and wilting of the lower leaves and stunting of the plants. Infection of older plants usually results in the plants producing only a few poorly filled pods. These diseases are not as prevalent on well-drained soils. Double-dug raised beds amended with abundant organic matter can greatly improve soil aeration and drainage. Fusarium wilt can be avoided by growing wilt-resistant varieties.
Questions & Answers
Q. Should I inoculate my peas with nitrogen-fixing bacteria before planting?
A. When peas are planted on new land, you may increase the yield by inoculating peas with a commercial formulation of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. In an established garden, however, inoculation is less necessary. If you are in doubt, inoculation is a relatively inexpensive process that is easy to do and ensures better plant-nutrient status.
Selection & Storage
There are two common varieties of peas, green garden peas that need shelling (i.e., the pod has got to be removed) and edible-pod peas that are eaten whole. Green garden peas (such as the Little Marvel peas) are legumes just like dried peas, except they are eaten at the immature stage.
Snow peas, sugar snap peas, Chinese pea pods and many others fall into the latter category. They are low fiber pods with small wrinkled peas inside. The entire pod is eaten, cooked or raw.
Peas are a cool weather, early spring crop. Harvest edible-pod peas when they are flat. Use both hands. Holding the plant stem in one hand use the other hand to pull off the pod. Using one hand, you can easily pull up the entire plant.
The smaller pods are sweeter and more tender. Use them for eating raw and cook the larger ones. The shelled peas (i.e., the garden pea variety) should be plump but not large. Check one until you become familiar with the appearance. The plumpest peas should be gathered before the pod starts to wrinkle on the stem. Old peas taste starchy and mealy.
Fresh peas keep for 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator. The sugar in them quickly begins to turn to starch even while under refrigeration. As much as 40 percent of the sugar is converted in a few hours. Store unwashed peas in perforated plastic bags for a few days. The sooner they are eaten the better.
Preparation & Serving
Wash garden peas just before shelling. To shell, pinch off the ends and pull the string down on the inside of the pod and pop the peas out. Wash edible pod peas and trim both ends. Remove the string from both sides of the pod. Cook briefly or serve raw. Steam, sauté or stir-fry quickly to retain the bright green color and vitamin C content. Vitamin C is easily destroyed by over cooking.
Home Preservation (To Prepare Garden Peas or Sugar Peas for Freezing)
Peas freeze beautifully if they are fresh. Fresh frozen peas do not need to be cooked upon thawing. Just add to soups, stews or heat briefly before serving.
Since freezing does not improve the quality of any vegetable, it is important to start with fresh green pods. Avoid old tough pods as they will only get tougher during freezing.
In a blanching pot or large pot with tight fitting lid, bring about 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, wash, trim and string, pea pods. Blanch no more than one pound of peas at a time. Drop peas into boiling water and immediately cover with a tight fitting lid. Start timing the blanching immediately and blanch shelled peas for two minutes and pods for five minutes.
Prepare an ice water bath in a large 5 to 6 quart container or use the sink. Remove the peas from the blanching water with a slotted spoon or blanching basket. Emerge the peas in the ice water bath for 5 min. or until completely cool. If ice is unavailable, use several changes of cold tap water to cool the vegetables. Remove from water and drain.
Label and date, quart size, zip-closure freezer bags. Pack peas into prepared freezer bags, squeeze out as much air as possible by folding the top portion of the bag over. Gently push air out and seal. Freeze for up to one year at 32°F or below.
Note: Blanching water and ice water bath may be used over and over again. Return blanching water to a boil after each batch of vegetables is blanched and replenish water if necessary.
The flavor of fresh garden peas is complimented by spearmint, marjoram, rosemary, and thyme.
They hold up well in stir-fry preparations. Boost the nutritional value of meals by adding them to pasta, soups, stews and rice dishes or raw in a fresh garden salad.
Peas and Dill Salad
Prep Time: 5 Minutes
Cook Time: 10 Minutes
Ready In: 15 Minutes
Sweet peas with a tangy dressing
4 cups blanched green peas
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon Dijon-style prepared mustard
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill weed ground black pepper to taste
Gently pat peas with a paper towel to absorb any excess moisture. Place peas in a large bowl.
In small bowl combine the mayonnaise, sour cream, horseradish, mustard and 3 tablespoons dill weed. Add to peas and toss to coat. Sprinkle remaining dill over top. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours.
Prep Time: 5 Minutes
Cook Time: 10 Minutes
Ready In: 15 Minutes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped romaine lettuce
1-1/2 pounds shelled fresh peas or frozen tiny peas, thawed
1/4 cup minced shallots or white part of green onion
1 large whole sprig parsley
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
Heat oil in a 3 quart saucepan. Place lettuce on top of oil. Add peas, shallots, parsley, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer covered, stirring occasionally, 10 to 15 minutes, or until peas are just tender. Remove parsley sprig before serving.
Saving Pea Seeds
Save pea seeds by allowing the pods to ripen on the plants until they are dry and starting to turn brown, with the seeds rattling inside. This may be as long as a month after you would normally harvest the peas to eat. Strip the pods from the plants and spread them out to dry indoors. They should dry at least two weeks before shelling, or you can leave the seeds in the pods until planting time